China’s new standard map reignites tensions with India
For some time, circumstances along the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC) seemed to be improving. India and China had taken steps to encourage dialogue and reconciliation on issues related to the disputed boundaries that present potential flashpoints for conflict between the two countries. Recent engagement occurred up to the head-of-state level, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa. The two leaders had agreed to work towards “early disengagement and de-escalation” at the LAC, giving hope that substantive progress might follow. Then, China released its new ‘standard map’ on 28 August 2023. This map which represents China’s territorial and administrative claims has drawn the ire of many countries in the region. Much of the focus has been on China’s claims in the South China Sea, as the map prominently added a tenth dash to the already contentious “nine-dash line.” But for India, China’s new map reignited tensions over the two sides’ longstanding border conflict which has spanned decades and included a brief war in 1962. While they had taken steps to temper issues related to those competing border claims, the new map unabashedly incorporates the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin region, both of which are claimed by India. The Indian government has already lodged a strong protest with China over the map. Calling it “absurd” and “unacceptable,” officials have asserted that the map “only complicates the resolution of the boundary question.” For New Delhi, the release of the map suggests that China is neither sincere nor serious about resolving border issues. It is a clear assertion of China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, and it is detrimental to creating a conducive atmosphere for negotiations. Instead, it risks deepening the mistrust that exists between India and China, making it difficult for practitioners to imagine a peaceful resolution to the dispute.
China’s new standard map, released 28 August 2023
Recent dialogue on the LAC
The border dispute between India and China is a long-standing one, and it has led to several armed clashes between the two countries. The most recent incidents took place in June 2020, when twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a clash in the Galwan Valley, and in December 2022 in the Tawang sector that left soldiers injured on both sides. To mitigate the risk of these incidents, the two sides have instituted mechanisms for military-to-military dialogue, including the establishment of meeting fora and hotlines. Although these mechanisms have been unable to mitigate all sources of conflict and tension, they have proven useful as tools for de-escalation and for advancing discussions on the management of border issues. Accordingly, India and China held the 19th round of Corps Commander-level talks on 13-14 August 2023 to help resolve outstanding issues. During those talks, the Indian side sought access to all old patrolling locations and early disengagement from the remaining friction points, including Depsang Plains and Demchok. An overall de-escalation of troops from the Ladakh region was also on the agenda. The talks came at a time when the two countries were also working to finalize the details of a disengagement agreement at the Hot Springs area in eastern Ladakh, lending hope that the agreement would be signed soon. Those talks were followed by a series of Major General-level talks over six days to discuss border flashpoints, the depth and scope of patrolling in disputed areas, and other confidence-building measures. While there has been no official statement on the outcome of those talks, reports indicate that the dialogue was held in a positive and constructive manner with the aim of making progress in easing border tensions. Then, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit on 22-24 August, Prime Minister Modi continued discussions with President Xi Jinping, raising India’s concerns about unresolved boundary issues. This was the first bilateral meeting of the two leaders since their engagement in Bali in November 2022. During their “informal conversation” in Johannesburg, both leaders agreed to issue necessary instructions to their officials for early de-escalation at the border. Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra followed this up with a statement that both sides agreed to step up efforts for the disengagement of troops along the LAC. He also emphasized that “the Prime Minister underlined that maintenance of peace and tranquillity in border areas, including observing and respecting the LAC, is essential for the normalization of India-China relations.” All these steps contributed to perceptions that substantive progress on border issues might be possible. But things would change just a few short days after the Modi-Xi meeting in South Africa.
What are the implications of China’s new standard map?
The publication of China’s new standard map was abrupt. There were no diplomatic notifications prior to its release, perhaps owing to the expectation that the territorial and administrative claims would elicit criticism and protest. Instead, the Chinese government simply published the map, which included excessive claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, indicated in the graphic below:
The implications of China’s new map have the potential to be far-reaching. The map is a clear assertion of China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin at a time when the two sides were actively working to de-escalate rather than escalate tensions. It erodes trust in dialogue mechanisms and contributes to the perception that China will not commit to any agreements it makes related to the LAC, since its territorial ambitions clearly exceed what is currently being discussed between the two sides. Further, the erosion of confidence between the India and China could lead to increased military activity along the border. India already deployed additional troops to the border region following the incidents in the Galwan Valley and Tawang Sector, and any further buildup to reassert presence along the LAC is likely to see reciprocal action from China. This could increase the risk of another armed clash between the two countries—whether deliberate or accidental. Such incidents between India and China are significant, since both countries are consequential in the broader scope of world affairs owing to their economic and diplomatic reach.
What can be done to resolve the border dispute?
The border dispute between India and China is a complex one, and there is no easy solution, particularly since the government in Beijing is guaranteed not to rescind its new standard map. Understanding that political constraint, the two sides must figure out how to manage the practical issues that it creates. To do that, there are three things the two governments can do to prevent this issue from escalating into something more dangerous. First, both countries need to demonstrate to each other a willingness to compromise. While China may not bend on its publicized political claims, there are practical concessions that the government can make. For the Indian side, it will likely require similar practical concessions related to disputed territory that is currently under the administration of the Chinese side. Second, the two countries need to increase communication and cooperation at all levels. The publication of the new standard map may trigger some policymakers to call for the cessation dialogue, but this is the time when practitioners must engage more, not less, to repair trust and understanding between the two sides. Third, the two countries need to work together to achieve progress in other issue areas that present sources of tension between them. This could include issues such as trade and investment. Achieving confidence building measures related to territorial claims can be difficult, but finding ways to demonstrate commitment to bilateral agreements in other matters can mitigate political-level tensions. The resolution of the border dispute between India and China will not be easy, but it is essential for the peace and stability of the region. Both countries need to show a commitment to resolving the conflict, and they need to be willing to make difficult compromises. It is still too early to say exactly what longer-term impacts the new standard map may have bilateral relations; however, it is clear that if left unaddressed through practical engagement, it will remain an obstacle to the peace process.
Neeraj Singh Manhas is the Director of Research in the Indo-Pacific Consortium at Raisina House, New Delhi. He has authored and edited four books and has various research interests covering Sino-Indian border issues, China in the Indian Ocean; India-China Foreign Policy; Water security; Defence, and Indo-Pacific studies. His latest edited book, “Analysing the Current Afghan Context,” was published by (Routledge, 2023). He has published his writings for renowned institutions such as the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP), Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Centre for the Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (Singapore), Jamestown Foundation, The Hindu BusinessLine, The Pioneer, Financial Express, Firstpost, The Millennium Post, and other online platforms. He tweets @The_China _Chap.